Olaf Stapledon’s Little Twiddly Scrawls; Siegfried Sassoon’s Idyll Turns to Remorse; Edward Heron-Allen on Parade

Olaf Stapledon remains committed to the principle that the experiential gulf (not to mention the two hemispheres) that separates him from his beloved Agnes can best be bridged by creating familiarity with his circumstances. This letter isn’t quite up to his previous high standard of literary teleportation, but it operates on the same implicit premise: if I can write you into knowing the people I’m with, it will be like we are closer together…

SSA 13

4 February 1918

Yesterday I wrote you a scrap in a hurry; today I am beginning again or rather tonight, and under awkward circumstances, for I am at an aid post with three garrulous Englishmen and two garrulous Frenchmen. The latter have gone but the former remain. One of them is making cocoa, which is now an almost unheard of luxury. He is the well-bred and well-built younger [George Romney] Fox, our best runner, and a charming lad although he is a bit too pleased with himself. Another is one [William] Meredith, formerly in Cadbury’s works, a keen self-educating lad who suffers from two disadvantages, being neither of the well-to-do nor of the proper “working” class. He somehow always errs on the side of formality and over respectability; but he also is a good lad, a hard worker too. The third is the great and famous inhabitant of Liverpool, Alec Gunn, called the mitrailleuse on account of his endless rattle of talk. . . .

Goodnight. These silly little black twiddly scrawls that are our only lines of communication! Goodnight.[1]

It’s Stapledon’s gift–and his dogged project–to keep two hearts close together as their time apart stretches to many years.

 

And it’s Siegfried Sassoon‘s gift to house two different personalities within himself–Outdoor Sassoon (or George Sherston, the Fox-Hunting Man) and Indoor Sassoon, the poet. Today, however, he once again works from the outside in.

Hacked to meet—four miles from Limerick. Fine sunny morning. Rode Sheeby’s big bay mare…  [the fox] ran very twisting (a vixen). Slow hunting for about forty minutes, ran toward Limerick, and killed at a farm… A poorish day, but very jolly… Happy days.

Sassoon’s previous few days of “jolly” hunting produced poems that dwelt in the happy hunting grounds of his mind, keeping the war well in the background. But today this “jolly,” “happy” diary mood somehow twisted, vixen-like to produce a bloody, angry, haunted war poem in his old style.

 

Remorse

Lost in the swamp and welter of the pit,
He flounders off the duck-boards; only he knows
Each flash and spouting crash,—each instant lit
When gloom reveals the streaming rain. He goes
Heavily, blindly on. And, while he blunders,
‘Could anything be worse than this?’—he wonders,
Remembering how he saw those Germans run,
Screaming for mercy among the stumps of trees:
Green-faced, they dodged and darted: there was one
Livid with terror, clutching at his knees…
Our chaps were sticking ’em like pigs. ‘O hell!’
He thought—‘there’s things in war one dare not tell
Poor father sitting safe at home, who reads
Of dying heroes and their deathless deeds.[2]

 

Sassoon does this sort of thing very well. What should I add? Either you are pummeled by the force of the imagery and the rhythm of the verse into a sharper awareness of the horror of war, or you are put off by the oversimplifications that such a direct assault necessitates. Or both…

 

Finally–this is an awkward segue, given that this is an older man, safe at home, and very impressed with his own father’s deathless deeds–we mark a major change in the circumstances of Edward Heron-Allen. After several years (but only a few entries, here) of life as a not-so-young and slightly cracked home-front volunteer, he is now to begin life as an elderly subaltern: he began training with his very own platoon of Sussex volunteers, today, a century back, at Tunbridge Wells.

Here I am at the end of the first day and if it is all going to be like today it will be interesting…

Perhaps: but the diary is not–unless it can be excerpted for the purpose of not-so-gentle mockery. The ankle deep mud on the parade ground at Tunbridge Wells gave Heron-Allen “an idea of the state of things in Flanders…” except for the fact that in the very next sentence they give up bayonet training because it is “too filthy,” and have a lecture instead. Just like in Flanders.[3]

But we will look in on Heron-Allen as his time in training camp continues… it will get more interesting for him, and for us as well…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 280.
  2. Diaries, 209-10.
  3. Journal, 141-44.

Two Pacifists in Contemplation: Max Plowman on Bloody Murder, as Seen from England; Olaf Stapledon Organizes the Library

Max Plowman‘s letter to the pacifist leader Mrs. Pethick Lawrence began yesterday, a century back, as a thank-you note–she has evidently been providing moral support and advice– which also enclosed some news and also some (unidentified) verses of his own. But today he added a thoughtful few paragraphs on his thoughtlessness, namely his inability–and the  inability of soldiers generally–to consider the war as an ethical problem while actively engaged in fighting it. It’s only when returning that the soldier is ready to analyze–and protest.

Looking back I see this. When the average soldier says, as he almost invariably does, after his first “bad time” at the front “This isn’t war, it’s bloody murder”, he does so because he realises for the first time that he is not fighting man but that he is pitting his flesh & blood against killing-machinery. When a 9″ shell arrives from perhaps 2 miles away his most elementary sense of fairness is at once outraged…[1]

This seems right, of course, and it’s hard not to feel that it’s strange that it has taken Plowman so long to see it this way. And yet his conclusion is at once too materialist and too hopeful: he argues that since all men will come to hate war as an “outrage on humanity” then there is hope in the brutal industrialization of war. War is killing itself, and soon humanity will have done with it. But the irony will not break that way, will it…

 

Olaf Stapledon has never wavered in his pacifism, and–though manning an ambulance behind the lines (never mind in reserve) is not the same thing, when it comes to facing up to war’s industrial slaughter, as fighting in the trenches–he has remained steadfast in his belief that something of what he experiences can not only be understood, but also communicated, across a world-wide gulf.

SSA 13

3 February 1918

We have been on the move again, and are now settled down to the old old work. There is very little doing, but the moving is quite an affair, & I am on duty for two or three days also. This good old billet is a palace compared with our others, as it is a deserted farmhouse. But beds are scarce, and I have none, sleeping on the floor with a few rugs folded up to form a mattress, but I have got a good spot that is practically open air.

The last convoy to be here left the place in utter filth, but they left behind some excellent board-shelves which I have commandeered for the public library; and so I have been busy reorganising all the books and cataloguing, seizing the opportunity just now when all the books are in. Quite an undertaking, especially scolding people who have lost or ill-treated books. Tomorrow I shall not be here, so it had to be done today. Tomorrow I wear my good old tin hat again for the first time for two months. . . .[2]

Olaf Stapledon was not an unlikely pick to end up as what we might call a non-combatant combat librarian…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Bridge into the Future, 96.
  2. Talking Across the World, 279.

Vera and Edward Brittain Share a Melancholy Leave; Rowland Feilding Spots a Pansy in Bloom

Vera Brittain has had a rough couple of weeks. Or, really, a rough week followed by a week of that bewildering mixture of joy and prospective fear, love and looming loss, that characterizes a leave shared with loved ones. Better, really, that she tell the tale:

On January 12th, a hard, bitter morning, a telegram suddenly arrived from Edward: “Just got leave. Can you get it too?” I went at once to the humane Scottish “Red-cape” who had succeeded the Matron of the autumn; I had been in France for nearly six months, and she told me that she would put in for my leave immediately. In a day or two my orders came through, and I packed up and started for England.

As I was too late for that afternoon’s boat I had to spend the night in Boulogne, where I scarcely slept for a burning head and a dull ache all over my body. Next morning a very rough and prolonged crossing made me feel so ill that I hardly knew how to bear it, and as the freezing train from Folkestone did nothing to aid my recovery, I reached Kensington in a state of collapse very different from the triumphant return from Malta. Edward, who had arrived from Italy four days earlier, had gone to Victoria to meet me, but in the crowd and the dark confusion we had some- how missed each other.

Fortified by a large dose of aspirin from Edward’s medical case, I went to bed at once, but woke next morning with a temperature of 103 degrees, and for several days had such high fever that the London doctor thought I should be obliged to overstay my leave. The particular “bug” that had assailed me was difficult to locate, but was obviously a form of “P.U.O.” or trench fever not dissimilar from the Malta disease in 1916. Perhaps, indeed, that old enemy was reasserting itself, stimulated by overwork or by my fatigued failure to dry my bedclothes sufficiently one recent morning when I had come off duty to find them saturated by a snowstorm which had blown open my hut window during the night.

After a week of feverish misery I was thankful to find myself beginning to feel better. The aches and pains had been bad enough, but worst of all was the conscience-stricken sense that I had spoiled Edward’s leave and overburdened my mother. Her health was certainly none too good; with one indifferent maid she had felt her powers taxed to their limit by the care of the flat, and must have been driven neatly frantic by the simultaneous appearance of a sick daughter who needed quite careful nursing, and a vigorous son who continually demanded her society at concerts or urged her to accompany him in a newly acquired selection of violin sonatas.

As soon as my temperature went down it seemed like a pleasant dream to have Edward once more beside me, telling me stories of the journey to Italy, and describing the grey rocks and dark pine forests of the Asiago Plateau. But by the time that I was able to go out, rather shakily holding his arm, only three days of his leave were left, and all that we could manage to achieve alone were two theatres and a few hours of Bach and Beethoven.

Our short time together, so long anticipated and so much discussed in letters, had been completely upset by my absurd illness, and on January 25th, almost before we had talked of anything, he was obliged to go back. I had missed so much of his society that I broke my resolution to avoid stations and saw him into the return leave-train for Italy at Waterloo; I compromised with superstition by leaving the platform before the train went out. At the flower-stall on the station he bought me a large bunch of the year’s first Parma violets, and though we did not mention it, we both thought of a verse in the song “Sweet Early Violets,” which he had bought for his gramophone in Italy and played over to me at home:

Farewell! Farewell!
Tho’ I may never see your face again.
Since now we say “good-bye!”
Love still will live, altho ’ it live in vain,
Tho’ these, tho’ these, my gift, will die!

How handsome he is now, I thought, but so grave and mature; it’s obviously an ageing business to become a company commander at twenty-one. Dear Edward, shall we ever be young again, you and I? It doesn’t seem much like it; the best years are gone already, and we’ve lost too much to stop being old, automatically, when the War stops — if it ever does.

If it ever does! The journey back from Waterloo, in a chilly Tube train, had a quality of wretchedness that no words can convey, though I had now said good-bye at stations so often that I had long outgrown the disintegrating paralysis which followed the first farewell to Roland in March 1915. I couldn’t help asking myself for the hundredth time if I should ever see Edward again, but the sorrow of parting had become almost a mechanical sorrow; like the superhuman achievements of ward rushes after convoys, it was an abnormality which had been woven into the fabric of daily life. I no longer even wondered when the War would end, for I had grown incapable of visualising the world or my own existence without it.

At home a flat dejection pervaded everything now that Edward was gone, and I firmly resisted the suggestion that I should use my semi-invalid weakness as an excuse to apply for extension of leave. The universal topics of maids and ration-cards now so completely dominated the conversation in every household that I felt quite glad when my own fortnight was up four days later, and I could return from food-obsessed England to France.[1]

 

And as for that war in France, Rowland Feilding reports on a mucky but quiet period, striving, as ever to bridge the gulf between home front and war that Vera Brittain feels so intensely, if only to stay connected with his wife.

January 25, 1918. Ronssoy

Things here are very tranquil. Indeed, the whole front seems quieter than it has been for years. Perhaps the weather accounts for it—and the mud of the trenches—which has to be seen to be believed. To-day has been sunny and warm, and I have seen a pansy in blossom in one of the devastated gardens among the ruins. This must have been a village of gardens once upon a time before the war.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Testament of Youth, 402-4.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 248.

Carroll Carstairs Decorated in Retreat; Herbert Read: the Game is not Worth the Candle; Rowland Feilding: Another Life Well Snuffed Out

Not long ago we saw Carroll Carstairs to the Casualty Clearing Station with a raging fever that will carry him all the way to Blighty. As he lay there, thinking “[h]ow cool these sheets and how warm these blankets” he also fantasized about pinning on the “pretty ribbon” of the Military Cross he had earned during a desperate withdrawal near Cambrai. Today, a century back–in his absence–the award was paraded, along with four other officers of the 3rd Grenadier Guards, before their reserve billets in Arras.[1]

 

Rowland Feilding‘s letter of today, a century back, is the purest war story we’ve had in quite some time–and it, too, is a story of determined and courageous defense rather than aggressive valor.

January 10, 1918. Front Line, Lempire.

A few minutes before four o’clock this morning the enemy tried to raid one of my Lewis gun posts which is placed, necessarily in an isolated position, well out in Noman’s Land, about 150 yards in front of the fire-trench, in a sunken road which crosses both lines of trenches. The raiders came across the snow in the dark, camouflaged in white overalls.

In parenthesis, I may explain that while I have been away there have been two unfortunate cases of sentries mistaking wiring parties of the Divisional pioneer battalion for the enemy;—whether owing to the failure of the wiring parties to report properly before going out, or to overeagerness on the part of the sentries, I do not profess to know. No one was hurt on either occasion, but a good deal of fuss was made about it, our new Brigadier blaming the men who did the shooting—his own men—and saying so pretty forcibly.

When I first heard of this I thought that a mistake had been made—if for no other reason than that there would for a time at any rate be a disinclination on the part of sentries to shoot promptly, which might prove dangerous;—and that is what happened this morning.

The double sentries on duty in the sunken road heard, but in the darkness did not see, a movement in front of them. Hesitating to shoot, they challenged. The immediate reply was a volley of hand-grenades. Private Mayne, who had charge of the Lewis gun, was hit “all over,” in many parts, including the stomach. His left arm was reduced to pulp. Nevertheless, he struggled up, and leaning against the parapet, with his uninjured hand discharged a full magazine (forty-seven rounds) into the enemy, who broke, not a man reaching our trench. Then he collapsed and fell insensible across his gun. The second sentry’s foot was so badly shattered that it had to be amputated in the trench. The doctor has just told me that he performed this operation without chloroform, which was unnecessary owing to the man’s numbed condition, and that while he did it the man himself looked on, smoking a cigarette, and with true Irish courtesy thanked him for his kindness when it was over.

Words cannot express my feelings of admiration for Private Mayne’s magnificent act of gallantry, which I consider
well worthy of the V.C. It is, however, improbable that he will live to enjoy any decoration that may be conferred upon him.[2]

 

So one Irish soldier lies dying, and another has lost his foot–and who knows how many Germans were killed or wounded in the pointless raid, in January, months away from any possibility of “strategic” effect.

Could the war have gone otherwise?

Of course–and of course not. But it really does seem that this is the season of discontent among the more philosophically-minded officers of the B.E.F.–and not just Plowman, with his liberal political ties and pacifist past, or Sassoon, with his impulsiveness and sensitivity. Although career officers like Feilding may still generally confine their criticisms to aspects of the conduct of the war with which they themselves are familiar–the slack pioneers, the short-sighted brigadier–more and more “fighting officers” are turning against the entire war of attrition, now in its fourth bitter winter.

Herbert Read is a happier warrior than many, equipped as he is with a fondness for Nietzsche, an aptitude for small-unit warfare, and unusually deep reserves of mental fortitude. But though the tone is different and the protest oblique rather than direct, he is in more or less the same place, in terms of ethical calculation, as Sassoon and Plowman: the war of attrition is a foolish waste, and cannot be won by indefinite persistence. Courage notwithstanding and courtesy aside, Feilding’s two Irish sentries might agree.

Read’s letter to Evelyn Roff begins ordinarily enough, but soon works toward the somewhat surprising admission of his own public statement against the war.

We are midway through a long weary tour of trench duty. We do four days in the line and then four in support and four in reserve–and this sometimes for more than a month…

As a Company commander I get a much easier time in the line–no long dreadful night-watches. I manage to get a little reading done. I’ve just finished one of Conrad’s novels–Under Western Eyes. Like all Conrad’s it is extraordinarily vivid and a fine appreciation of life. You must read Conrad… Get hold of Lord Jim if you haven’t already read it. There’s a human hero for you…

I also managed to write a short article and send it on to the New Age…  I called it ‘Our Point of View and my chief points were:

a) That the means of war had become more portentous than the aim–i.e. that the game is not worth the candle.

b) That this had been realized by the fighting soldier and on that account has been, out here, an immense growth of pacifist opinion.

Of course, it might offend the Censor. But it is the truth. I know my men and the sincerity of their opinions. They know the impossibility of a knock-out blow and don’t quite see the use of another long year of agony. We could make terms now that would clear the way for the future. If, after all that Europe has endured, her people can’t realize their most intense ideal (Good-will)–then Humanity should be despaired of–should regard self-extinction as their only salvation. But I for one have faith, and faith born in the experience of war.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Generation Missing, 150.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 246-7.
  3. The Contrary Experience, 116-7.

Olaf Stapledon Plays Defense; Duff Cooper Takes the Last Blow

The antipodean mails have caught up with Olaf Stapledon, leaving him to respond to two very different letters from his beloved, Agnes Miller. First the personal, then the political:

. . . In one you talked about our inevitable drifting apart in all this absence; and all that you said was wise and comforting, and rests on the solid base rock of our now-long-standing love. It will all come right when we meet. Meanwhile let us always be frank and say just what we feel, so that we may know where we are, nicht war? Naturally I also have ups and downs of feeling. Life would be unendurable if one were always at the excruciating zenith of feeling. In the absence of summer the little beasts hibernate, to save themselves for keener living when the sun returns. With us also there must needs be much hibernating of the keen spirit of “being in love.” Be sure it will wake again in full vigour when the time comes…

As for the second letter, Stapledon’s rehearsal of his motivations and justifications is especially interesting in light of Max Plowman‘s recent deliberations:

In one letter you talked about the FAU and my relations with it… As to the whole question of my being in the F.A.U. here is a summary of the matter: I joined largely because I was in a hurry to get out & do something, partly because I was nearing pacifism. (I was practically promised a commission before joining the FAU. There was not much question of pacifism at first.) My pacifism strengthened itself in the Unit, till now it is pretty firm. It is of course a compromising sort of idea in my case—simply “I’ll do all that the state commands save whatever seems utterly wrong.” If everyone were ready to do this work & no more there would be no war. That seems to me the reasonable and—what shall I say?–the gentlest course. And I do hold that reasonableness and gentleness are the qualities most needed today. Of courage and masterfulness the world has already shown itself to have a glorious sufficiency. Anyhow here I am in the middle course, the compromise, by no means contented with it, but aware that if I were to  take either of the other two courses it would be less from a sense of duty than from the longing to be out of an uncomfortable position. . . .

Haste now. Love me. I cannot change from loving you, in spite of all hibernating.

Your own

Olaf Stapledon[1]

 

And in London, the weight of the war comes home again. Duff Cooper‘s diary records his shrinking circle’s latest loss:

I dined at the Ritz in Lionel [Tennyson]’s sitting room. It was a bachelor party. I arrived first, then Michael. We had to wait some time for William Rawle who was the fourth. He came at last and said ‘I’m sorry I’m late. Patrick Shaw-Stewart has been killed.’ I felt stunned. This is the last blow. Lionel, Michael and William were all sad but none of them could have felt what I did. I courted forgetfulness in champagne but didn’t get much comfort.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 267-8.
  2. Diaries, 63.

Horseplay with Alf Pollard; Reading and Reflection with Vera Brittain, Olaf Stapledon, Cynthia Asquith, and Edmund Blunden; Wilfred Owen Goes Out a Poet; Thomas Hardy in the Moon’s Bright Disbelief

The last day of the year, with its predictable subjects of reflection and memorable rituals, is often described even in otherwise sparsely dated accounts. So we’ve got a lot of material, and will check in today with not only most of our remaining regulars but also a half-forgotten figure or two.

One of the latter is Alf Pollard, V.C., now spared further death-defying heroics in the front line. His tale of the year’s end foreshadows important developments on the Western Front. He has been assigned to teach at a Lewis Gun school, and without the Lewis gun, a mobile light machine gun, it is extremely difficult for infantry to sustain their own advance. Moreover, many of his students are particularly innocent, fresh, and eager for the fray:

There were nineteen Americans altogether in the school. They were all picked officers who had been sent on ahead of their army to learn as much as possible about British methods. They were a quiet, studious crowd, more like a party of bank inspectors than soldiers…

Of course they had their legs pulled unmercifully…

I was guilty of organising a rag against them on New Year’s Eve… According to custom we British had a merry party to see the old year out. The Americans on the other hand carried on with their studies all the evening and retired to bed as usual at ten o’clock.. It seemed to me that they might at least have thrown aside the dignity of being the advanced guard of the American Army for one night…

Close on one o’clock in the morning, I and three other fellows entered quietly by one door.[1]

Ah, but that’s next year, already. And that’s the sort of tale told by a man who was never deeply troubled by the violence of the war. Pollard is both psychologically suited to fighting, and more or less immune to doubt. Which does not make him less honest than more sensitive writers: many men–especially men who are not at the front and not likely to see it anytime soon–spent New Year’s Eve in a spirit of holiday horseplay, deliberately forgetful of other things. Others, no less honest, will nevertheless feel constrained to write something in a mood of solemn reckoning.

 

Edmund Blunden has been sustained through his long and relatively scatheless service by his feelings of fellowship with his battalion. But he is away from the old battalion as much as he is with it now, and this signaling course seems both endless and pointless… but it does allow Blunden, even without being on an active front, to close the year with one of its characteristic sights: the mute messages of signal flares, playing over a background noise of ordnance.

I began to be careless whether I was in the line or out of it; nothing seemed to signify except the day’s meals, and those were still substantial, despite the lean supplies of the people at home. The price of all luxuries in the shops was rising fast, but still one could manage it; why trouble about getting back to the battalion? This was the general spirit, and we did not lament when the course was lengthened and the year ended with us waving flags in unison in the snow, or rapping out ludicrous messages to the instructors’ satisfaction, or listening to muddled addresses on alternating current.

At the moment of midnight, December 31, 1917, I stood with some acquaintances in a camp finely overlooking the whole Ypres battlefield. It was bitterly cold, and the deep snow all round lay frozen. We drank healths, and stared out across the snowy miles to the line of casual flares, still rising and floating and dropping. Their writing on the night was as the earliest scribbling of children, meaningless; they answered none of the questions with which a watcher’s eyes were painfully wide. Midnight; successions of coloured lights from one point, of white ones from another, bullying salutes of guns in brief bombardment, crackling of machine guns small on the tingling air; but all round the sole answer to unspoken but importunate questions was the line of lights in much the same relation to Flanders as at midnight a year before. The year 1918 did not look promising at its birth.[2]

 

For the Asquiths, the old year ended with a pleasant surprise–an unexpected leave for Herbert Asquith (“Beb,” to his wife). Whether for convenience or out of courtesy–or a certain delicacy–Herbert had telegraphed ahead on the 27th to let her know that he was on his way. Not coincidentally, perhaps, Bernard Freyberg, a constant presence in Cynthia’s diary for weeks now, disappears.

Today, a century back, Cynthia and Herbert had a walk and a talk, in which she discovers how happy she is that her husband is not inclined toward the family business. Even the son of the former prime minister is aggrieved at what appears to be a callous prolongation of the war…

Beb and I walked up to the top of the New Hill and back via Coscombe. It was one of the most lovely-looking days I have ever seen. Beb is in very good form—in good, lean looks and very keen and eager—seething with indignation against the Government and the ‘hate campaign’ of the civilians. He is ashamed of the way England brutally snubs every peace feeler, and reiterates that, either we should negotiate or else fight with all our might, which he says would mean doubling our army in the field. He speaks with rage of the way we are not nearly up to strength at the Front and says it is to a large extent merely a paper army. In existing circumstances a military victory is quite out of the question until America can really take the field, which will not be for years—and he thinks all the lives now being sacrificed are being wasted, it’s like going about with a huge bleeding wound and doing nothing to bind it up. Thank God Beb isn’t in the House of Commons! I should never have the moral courage to face the reception given to the kind of speech he would make.[3]

Siegfried Sassoon may have had more allies than he knew.

 

Olaf Stapledon would disagree with little of what Asquith is saying. But he is neither politician nor officer, and he is possessed of a much sunnier spirit. Sunny enough, anyway, to relate this pleasantly furry little portent of the coming year:

The other day someone in clearing out some straw came on a queer little beast hibernating. He was rather smaller than a rat and far more elegant, having a delicate brown back, a white underneath, with a black line dividing the two shades. He had a long and furry tail; in fact he was rather like a dormouse, only bigger and fatter & greyer. I saw him lying on his back in someone’s hand with his four dainty feet in the air and his tummy rising & falling ever so gently with his slumberous breath. After a while he opened his mouth and yawned but did not wake up. Some sympathetic fellow put him by the fire, the warmth of which naturally came to him as a hint of spring, so that he finally woke up and ran away. The frost must soon have induced him to find another corner in the straw and turn in again for the rest of the winter. It was very strange to see the little beast in his winter trance, so peaceful he was, almost as still as death, but without death’s stiffness. He let people wind his tail round their fingers and move his legs about and he went on heavily sleeping all the while. One kept thinking of Bergson’s elan vital, the great universal Life, that lay in him patiently awaiting the spring & the opportunity of further creativeness.

It is the last day of the year. Best wishes for the New Year to my Agnes. May there be peace. May the world begin its new and happier age. May you & I meet and marry and begin our new & happier age also. With all my love

Your own Olaf Stapledon[4]

Stapledon is a good writer, isn’t he? With ingenuous brio and a near-total absence of cynicism he takes the microcosmic beast and the whole universe, the world war and the love that carries his hope through all the horror.

And even with all the power of the internet at my disposal (for a good four minutes or so) I can’t do better on beast-identification than Stapledon. This is perhaps not surprising… Anyway… probably a dormouse!

 

But some of those who are away from the front prefer not to think of the war at all, as its fourth year draws to a close. Wilfred Owen, writing to his mother, is not so much solemn as pompously/mock-pompously portentous. And why not? It has been a momentous year for him: action and injury, shell shock and recovery, promotion from poetic striver to protegé-of-the-young-poets. The full effect of their help–and, more importantly, of his new confidence in his poetry–will be felt this year. He is melodramatic and self-aggrandizing, here… and correct:

31 December 1917, Scarborough

My own dear Mother,

…I am not dissatisfied with my years. Everything has been done in bouts: Bouts of awful labour at Shrewsbury & Bordeaux; bouts of amazing pleasure in the Pyrenees, and play at Craiglockhart; bouts of religion at Dunsden; bouts of horrible danger on the Somme; bouts of poetry always; of your affection always; of sympathy for the oppressed always.

I go out of this year a Poet, my dear Mother, as which I did not enter it. I am held peer by the Georgians; I am a poet’s poet.

I am started. The tugs have left me; I feel the great swelling of the open sea taking my galleon.

Buoyant, and beautiful. But then the galleon bobs on the tide, and the lookout looks back.

I take Owen to task, in these boyish letters to his mother, for being a self-centered young man. And he is–but he is also possessed of enormous powers of sympathy.

Last year, at this time, (it is just midnight, and now is the intolerable instant of the Change) last year I lay awake in a windy tent in the middle of a vast, dreadful encampment. It seemed neither France nor England, but a kind of paddock where the beasts are kept a few days before the shambles. I heard the revelling of the Scotch troops, who are now dead, and who knew they would be dead. I thought of this present night, and whether I should indeed—whether we should indeed—whether you would indeed—but I thought neither long nor deeply, for I am a master
of elision.

But chiefly I thought of the very strange look on all faces in that camp; an incomprehensible look, which a man will never see in England, though wars should be in England ; nor can it be seen in any battle. But only in Étaples. It was not despair, or terror, it was more terrible than terror, for it was a blindfold look, and without expression, like a dead rabbit’s.

It will never be painted, and no actor will ever seize it. And to describe it, I think I must go back and be with them.

We are sending seven officers straight out tomorrow.

I have not said what I am thinking this night, but next December I will surely do so.[5]

 

I wondered, on Christmas, whether Vera Brittain‘s description of that night might have run into New Year’e eve. If not, her Christmas gifts may well have: she has begun reading poetry again, including two writers who have featured slightly here. She mentions not only “an impressive poem called ‘The City of Fear’ by a certain Captain Gilbert Frankau, who had not then begun to dissipate his rather exciting talents upon the romances of cigar merchants” but also reading

some lines from E. A. Mackintosh’s “Cha Till Maccruimein,” in his volume of poems A Highland Regiment, which Roland’s mother and sister had sent me for Christmas:

And there in front of the men were marching.
With feet that made no mark.
The grey old ghosts of the ancient fighters
Come back again from the dark. . . .

Her brother Edward, the one of her ancient fighters who has not yet failed to come back, is thinking along much the same lines as he wrote to her today, a century back:

Italy, 31 December 1917

It has been a rotten year in many ways — Geoffrey and Tah dead and we’ve seen each other about a week all told: so there’s a sob on the sea to-night. I don’t seem to be able to write decently; so often I feel tired and fed up when I’ve done my ordinary work and so waste what little spare time I have; I wish I could manage to write to you more…[6]

 

Often at the beginning of the month I discuss a poem that was written or published during the month (but can’t be fixed to a particular day). But this month-inaugurating habit has such a hopeful, generous cast to it, doesn’t it? Why not mention poems at the end of the month as well?

Well, in December 1917 Thomas Hardy published Moments of Vision, a tremendous collection by a great poet–an old, cranky, great poet still either disesteemed by many as a novelist of less than impeccable writerly morals or ignored as an eminent Victorian who could surely have little to say to the current moment. Well, the more fool them. But as Hardy himself predicted, the book attracted little notice, since it offered little solace and tended to make people face an uncomfortable truth and “mortify the human sense of self-importance by showing, or suggesting, that human beings are of no matter or appreciable value in this nonchalant universe.”

I don’t need the poem to bring Hardy into the end of 1917 as the voice of doom…  there are, too, several end-of-year letters that will also serve…

To James Barrie:

We wish you as good a new year as can be hoped for, & a better one than the old…

To Edmund Gosse, and picking up Owen’s nautical theme:

Just a word of Salutation to you & your house on this eve of the New Year, for which you have our best wishes as fellow passengers in this precious war-galley…

And to Henry Newbolt:

…I don’t know that I have ever parted from an old year with less reluctance than from this.

…Always sincerely

Thomas Hardy.[7]

Yes, always sincere. And what of the old man himself, tonight, a century back?

Went to bed at eleven. East wind. No bells hear. Slept in the New Year, as did also those “out there.”[8]

This, I think, is why Hardy, more than any other eminent older man of letters, will be pardoned, by the young solider poets, of all offenses related to the Experiential Gulf or the Conflict of the Generations. He thinks, in his private thoughts, of what it must be to be a soldier, cold, at the front. And when he gestures to the troubled times, he does not do so without noticing the discomforting dramatizing of just such a gesture, from an old man snug abed…

In this spirit, then, and to see out the year, one of my favorite (write it!) of Hardy’s poems from the recent book. Happy New Year!

I looked up from my writing,
And gave a start to see,
As if rapt in my inditing,
The moon’s full gaze on me.

Her meditative misty head
Was spectral in its air,
And I involuntarily said,
“What are you doing there?”

“Oh, I’ve been scanning pond and hole
And waterway hereabout
For the body of one with a sunken soul
Who has put his life-light out.

“Did you hear his frenzied tattle?
It was sorrow for his son
Who is slain in brutish battle,
Though he has injured none.

“And now I am curious to look
Into the blinkered mind
Of one who wants to write a book
In a world of such a kind.”

Her temper overwrought me,
And I edged to shun her view,
For I felt assured she thought me
One who should drown him too.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Fire-Eater, 241.
  2. Undertones of War, 202-3.
  3. Diaries, 385-6.
  4. Talking Across the World, 266.
  5. Collected Letters, 520-1.
  6. Letters From a Lost Generation, 387-8.
  7. The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 236-9.
  8. The Life of Thomas Hardy, 378-9.

Olaf Stapledon Need Not Worry About Parting; Robert Graves Has a More Pleasant Walk in the Snow; Cynthia Asquith and Bernard Freyberg Clash… Over Siegfried Sassoon’s Hero; The Loves and Letters of Patrick Shaw Stewart

In a few moments it will be back to the Souls/Coterie and their tangle of letters and affairs, but we’ll begin today, a century back with a lonelier–and purer–soul. Olaf Stapledon, still home, still on leave, writes again to Agnes Miller, in Australia, and he takes yet another small step toward an uncharacteristic despair.

Sunday night, the last night of leave. I go early tomorrow. This evening Mother played some Rubinstein on the piano and part of it was a “melody” that you used to play. It brought back ancient days. Father and I had such a wet walk this morning. Thurstastone was all one driving blizzard.— But what’s the use of writing you a sort of schoolboy diary? The last night of leave is a poor night. It’s bad enough for oneself but it’s worse for one’s people; and their sorrow makes one grieve far more. It’s good to talk to you tonight, for I am not on the point of leaving you—alas, partings need not worry us, for we have not yet our meeting. You are always as near as ever, and as far.[1]

That rather sets the tone, doesn’t it? Despair and sorrow and high romance–and, that, of course is the use of writing such a diary.

 

Robert Graves, however, is more fortunate: his beloved is near at hand. His biographer notes yet another visit to Nancy Nicholson–and confirms that the Merseyside weather had reached London by evening.

On Sunday, after an early lunch, he went into town again, and did not arrive back in Wimbledon until three in the morning, after walking the last last of the journey, all the way from Putney, in a driving blizzard.[2]

 

Actually, it seems that it was snowing in London throughout the day. Last night, a century back, Cynthia Asquith locked her bedroom door after (somehow!) using “purple passages” of Shakespeare to hold off the advances of Bernard Freyberg. Today the two resumed their contest of wills in a proxy battle over–wait for it!–the poetry of a certain young writer absent from–though present in verse at–a recent soirée.

Sunday, 16th December

Slept badly after agitating evening and woke to swirling snowstorm. Mary resurrected and joined us after breakfast. Freyberg inveighed against the Georgian Poets and reproached me for holding a brief for Siegfried Sassoon. I maintained that, having fully demonstrated his personal physical courage, he had earned the right to exhibit moral courage as a pacifist without laying himself open to the charge of cloaking physical cowardice under the claim of moral courage. Freyberg is very uncompromising in his condemnation and, with some justice, says it is offensive to come back and say, ‘I can’t lead men to their death any more’—it implies a monopoly of virtue, as if other officers liked doing it because they acquiesced in their duty.

Yes, “some justice”–which is what Rivers led Sassoon to see, although–and this is an important distinction–with an emphasis more on the position of the men-to-be-led-to-their-deaths than on the unfairly maligned virtue of the other officers…

But Freyberg, an Argonaut, a 1914 volunteer, a V.C., and a young brigadier, is too canny, at least, to bring only a medal to a poetry fight. He has read some of Sassoon, and he has a practical objection:

He thought the poem called ‘The Hero’ caddish, as it might destroy every mother’s faith in the report of her son’s death. Certainly Siegfried Sassoon breaks the conspiracy of silence, but sometimes I strongly feel that those at home should be made to realise the full horror, even to the incidental ugliness, as much as possible.[3]

A strange “but” in that last sentence–but it is fascinating, of course, to find a woman at home taking the side of the poets’ realism/horror while the eminent fighting soldier stands up for the non-caddishness of comforting lies. Asquith’s declaration here is very much like the intense enthusiasm of later readers of Great War Poetry: not only does she hold a brief for Sassoon, but it’s essentially the same brief that has become canonical. She would deny the experiential gulf–or, rather, she would recognize it and esteem those poets who try to write across it, and read eagerly in order to be one of the better sort of home-front people, who read in order to understand the true war…

There are several ironies here, including Sassoon’s habit (which should be apparent to Asquith if she has read his books) of expressing a casual nastiness towards both aristocratic patronesses and older women and Asquith’s scoring such high marks in our implied hierarchy of worthy readers/home front loved ones while her husband, unmentioned in these sections of her diary, is overseas, and she is embroiled in a pseudo-affair with a brother officer…

But back to the practical point: there’s a war on, and someone must write something to a million grieving mothers. Freyberg has probably written dozens–he has been both a company commander and a battalion commander. And is absolute truth always a virtue? Was he definitively wrong to strive to find some balance between truth and mercy?

Here is ‘The Hero,’ then, Sassoon’s no-holds-barred assault on the convention of the C.O.’s condolence letter. It is also, incidentally, one of the few poems to feature a female character and yet not treat her scorn–condescension, perhaps, but not contempt.

‘Jack fell as he’d have wished,’ the mother said,
And folded up the letter that she’d read.
‘The Colonel writes so nicely.’ Something broke
In the tired voice that quavered to a choke.
She half looked up. ‘We mothers are so proud
Of our dead soldiers.’ Then her face was bowed.

Quietly the Brother Officer went out.
He’d told the poor old dear some gallant lies
That she would nourish all her days, no doubt
For while he coughed and mumbled, her weak eyes
Had shone with gentle triumph, brimmed with joy,
Because he’d been so brave, her glorious boy.

He thought how ‘Jack’, cold-footed, useless swine,
Had panicked down the trench that night the mine
Went up at Wicked Corner; how he’d tried
To get sent home, and how, at last, he died,
Blown to small bits. And no one seemed to care
Except that lonely woman with white hair.

 

There are other Argonauts abroad in London, and they have crossed paths all too quietly.

Missing, alas, from Diana Manners and Duff Cooper‘s diaries are accounts of Patrick Shaw Stewart‘s recent leave. The most probable explanation is simple awkwardness: Shaw Stewart has seen a great deal of the war, and Cooper is only recently commissioned, so there is a great gap of experience there, and experience is an incontestable, unexchangeable currency of honor… and yet it is the new subaltern Cooper who is on the verge of–to fall into the old sexist language, here–winning the prize they both coveted, and not the brigadier with the V.C.

Diana Manners avoided Shaw Stewart, seeing him only for a few meals, even when the two were thrown together (with Duff and a number of others) last weekend at a house party in Somerset. Shaw Stewart still enjoyed the party, describing a bag of fifty pheasants as “not a bad change from the winter campaign,” but, ignored by the woman he loved (and was still doggedly pursuing, by letter when not in person), he spent much of his time and energy on his more unconventional but equally intense relationship with “Ettie,” Lady Desborough, the light of the Souls, now fifty and the mother of Shaw Stewart’s dead friends Julian and Billy Grenfell.

Strange and intertwined as all these relationships are, it’s still remarkable to note that today, a century back[4] Shaw Stewart returned from leave to take over command of his battalion from Oc Asquith (the youngest of the three brothers, now promoted brigadier) after having left Manners (the intimate friend and best epistolary sparring partner of Raymond Asquith, the eldest of the three brothers) and Cooper behind, and then been seen to the train, a few days ago, by his friend and Naval Division colleague Bernard Freyberg. That’s right: Freyberg, who has been laying siege to the matrimonial loyalty of Cynthia Asquith, wife of the middle brother, Herbert, and who has let off all his guns to deter a nuisance foray in the form of a Siegfried Sassoon poem.

Shaw Stewart used that train journey to write to Lady Desborough, playfully refuting her suggestion that he had bought notepaper in order to write to “his girl friends–“even though he does fact continue to write to Diana Manners “almost daily.”

I did buy the notepaper, but it was to write to you to tell you how infinitely I adore you and how perfect and essential you have been to me this leave. What should I do without you? You are Julian and Billy, Edward and Charles to me, and then you are yourself.

Strange and effusive, but fitting, perhaps, for a letter between one of the great melodramatic late Victorians and an “Edwardian meteor.” And however overcooked we might find their social self-celebrations, however overheated their prose, there is no denying the fact that Lady Desborough, who has lost two of her three sons, and Shaw Stewart, who has lost the four friends he names (and many others), are united by harrowing and tremendous loss.

But, once more at the front, his letters–and loves–seem to have fallen into a more predictable course. Perhaps Diana was frustratingly cold when he was in England, but now, in the trenches, where it is bitterly cold in all too unmetaphorical sense, the old habit of reaching out to her, of telling his days to her, is still of great comfort: she is completely unobtainable, but the thoughts still warm him, perhaps. Shaw Stewart, ever the classicist, makes a nice tale of an ordinary, if severe, unpleasantness of winter duty:

Church Parade at 11 am… I thoughtfully issued an order that great-coats might be worn; then, proceeding through the icy blast to put on my own–the one you know too well–I found it caked with mud and the blood of my faithful uncomplaining horse. So, mindful of Hector’s rule that “it is impossible to make prayer to Zeus, lord of the clouds, all bespattered with mud and filth,”[5] I attended without, and nearly died of cold, besides having to sing to hymns without the band…

I inherited Oc’s half-shed and succeeded in putting on first, silk pyjamas, then flannel pyjamas, and then a fur lining, and then everything else on top, and in not waking more than twice in the night feeling cold…[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 261.
  2. R. P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 188-9.
  3. Diaries, 380-1.
  4. I think; the dating is not terribly clear. Oh for uniformly prim footnoting!
  5. Iliad VI, c. 263.
  6. Jebb, Patrick Shaw Stewart, An Edwardian Meteor, 236-8.

Wilfred Owen on “Militarian Subjects”–or Not; Olaf Stapledon Can’t Forget That There Are Trenches in the World

Wilfred Owen‘s letter of today, a century back, begins in a rather precious mode of poetic reverie but then quickly subsides back toward the plane of daily life. First, he tells his mother of plans to visit the school with which had been very involved during his “ergotherapy” at Edinburgh. This is a happy subject–a remembrance of good times, the pleasure and fulfillment he felt in teaching and in the admiration of the boys for the young officer come to instruct them. But while the mood stays jaunty–it almost always does, in these letters–the thread leads straight back to war. There is a shadow, even in a breezy letter from this sunny, undecorated, unheralded “major domo,” of the substance of Sassoon‘s protest–and of Owen’s determination (which may make his mother profoundly uncomfortable) to treat the suffering of the soldiers in Christian terms.

13 December 1917, Scarborough

Dearest Mother,

It is the quarter of an hour after lunch. The coffee has given me satisfaction and everybody else. (I serve coffee after lunch as well as dinner.) So I sit in the middle of my five-windowed turret, and look down upon the sea. The sun is valiant in its old age. I draw the Venetian blinds, so that the shadow of the lattices on the table gives an illusion of great heat…

Yesterday I was sent the Tynecastle School Magazine, very amusing. Mrs. Fullerton writes again this morning, reminding me how I promised to go up there for my first leave.

‘You can imagine our welcome better than I can write’ they say. Now, I find that Leave from Friday Night to Monday Night is granted every month! But Mrs. Fullerton is leaving the school for ever on the 21st. in order to be with her husband who will soon get sent out again.

There is much talk of Education for the ‘A 4’s’ of the Battalion, that is the tender younglings. I have been ‘approached’ on the subject, but I shall not consent to lecture on Militarian subjects. The scheme either comes of a desperate feeling that the race is going to perdition intellectually or else it is a Jesuitical movement to catch ’em young, & prepare them for the Eucharist of their own blood.

Dearest love from W.E.O.[1]

 

Interestingly, our other letter today is from Olaf Stapledon, the young pacifist whose entire war service has been a protest, as well as a “sacrifice” in the looser sense of something given (at great length and effort) where it might have been (selfishly) withheld. Stapledon, home on leave–in Merseyside, just across the island from Scarborough–is stewing, disgusted with the complacency and luxury which persist.

Stapledon and Owen are very different men in very different positions, but it’s tempting to consider some sort of equivalency. Stapledon, despite a period of crisis about the rights and wrongs of serving as an ambulance man (rather than as either a soldier or a pacifist abstainer, ready for the other martyrdom of prison and social ignominy) has been shielded from the full misery of the war: he has not had to fight, or sit for many hours under enemy shelling. He has been in danger and he has seen terrible things, but nothing so terrible as a long, muddy tour in front-line trenches. So is he, in late 1917, only now approaching the mild level of disgust of a 1915 or early 1916 infantryman, while Owen has gone through all that in a few short weeks at the front (and a few long months recovering) and moved beyond it, to happy forgetfulness pottering about in a base job, picking out furniture, visiting old friends, and not thinking about what comes next?

Tempting–but I should have resisted. What’s the point, after all, of a strict timeline (i.e. the whole war, day by day) if I don’t resist the temptation to validate it by twisting it in different directions? Suffice it to say that today, a century back, Stapledon–who has never doubted that fighting the war is wrong–is wondering about who and what those who are fighting are fighting for. Are those for whom the sacrifices are allegedly being made worthy of them? The logical next step is to question, again, whether taking any action that enables the continuation of the war is morally justifiable.

Annery

13 December 1917

. . . I am all adrift, all sixes and sevens and so bored, bored to tears with the war and my own stodgy self. This leave has been somehow unreal. It has largely consisted in going round talking platitudes to people about the war, and in slipping back comfortably into the artificial life that we all lead at home in our most excessive middle class luxury. Plates & dishes & knives & forks & furniture beyond the wildest need, & all so beautifully clean. Fires, hot baths, dainty food–& yet there are trenches in the world.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 516.
  2. Talking Across the World, 260.

Wilfrid Ewart in Bourlon Wood: What They Asked Us to Do Was Impossible; Doctor Rivers in Another Doctor’s Hell

The Battle of Cambrai has seen an unprecedented advance, a failure to break through, and stiff German resistance in another torn and terrible wood. The Guards have been called in, now–on both sides.

Although Cambrai is one of the few battles not to feature in his novel Way of Revelation, it provided the most harrowing moments of Wilfrid Ewart‘s war experience. At first light, three companies of the First Scots Guards were ordered to clear Bourlon Wood.

This of course was sheer open fighting, and quite different than anything we had done before except on field days.

But it didn’t last long. Machine guns pinned down one flank of the assault, and after several hours of stationary fighting it became clear that the British were outnumbered, and the attackers withdrew.

Then orders came up that they must try again, at two o’clock.

This was at 1.15, so there was not much time to arrange it, and I had the wind up as never before, feeling certain that it was impossible to take the place owing to the machine-guns which were supposed to be rushed with the bayonet…

It is now, I think, that the poor planning of the Cambrai offensive–the first few hours markedly improved in conception and execution, the rest abandoned to foolish hopes–becomes most clear.

There was a short and quite useless machine-gun barrage, no artillery. Just after we had gone over, Tyringham tried to stop us, as the Command realized the hopelessness of it, but it was then too late.

One company was “laid out together trying to rush the machine-guns.” The two guns then turn on Ewart and two men, out in front of his platoon, only fifteen yards away. They throw themselves down behind “a young oak-tree.”

The machine-gun fired absolutely point blank, but could not quite reach us on account of the tree… two Lewis Gunners… kept firing for all they were worth…working their guns in the open until they were killed. Every man was killed one after the other…

By this Ewart probably means every man among the Lewis gunners and their support teams. He is pinned down between the Germans and his men, watching the one kill the other, helpless. Some of his platoon are able to withdraw, it seems, but the Germans now begin throwing phosphorous grenades among the wounded, “which set light to them and burnt them up.”

Ewart and the two men are soon alone, and make a desperate retreat, crawling for the rear. One makes it, then the next is hit heavily (he will die of his wound). Ewart goes last.

I waited about five minutes and then did a lightning sprint on my stomach, and by all natural laws ought to have been hit–the bullets were knocking stones up into my face… It was an experience I shall never wish to repeat… what they asked us to do was impossible.[1]

The First Scots Guards were relieved that night, and due for a longer rest; but their Battle of Cambrai was not yet over.

 

So goes the latest of the war’s bloody battles. But what of those who have survived the earlier battles, their bodies undestroyed and yet not intact?

A good deal of the literature of the war has focused on the question of psychological trauma–“shell-shock”–and how it was diagnosed, treated, experienced, remembered, and written. We have, first and foremost, the poetry of the surviving soldiers who struggled with “shell shock” or post-combat “neurasthenia.” These are the most primary of sources, of course, but “shell shock”–with its dramatic traumas, unstable psyches, and uncertain social reception–calls out for third party treatment, as it were. The novel remains one of the best tools we have for exploring the human mind, and especially for depicting the attempt of one mind to reach another, over particularly terrible gulfs of experience. One series of such attempts, mediated through the mind of Dr. Rivers, becomes the central subject of Pat Barker’s incomparable Regeneration trilogy.

Readers of this project may remember that Dr. Rivers–pioneering neurologist, skilled and sensitive therapist, and father-figure-hero to Siegfried Sassoon–is currently on leave in London after a staff dust-up at Craiglockhart, and working on an academic paper about his work with “war neuroses.” Today, a century back (in the novel, at least), he takes the cruelest sort of busman’s holiday, going to the National Hospital to observe the methods of of Dr. Lewis Yealland, who has boasted of a 100% cure rate for cases of hysterical war neurosis. Readers of Regeneration will certainly remember this scene–it’s awful. Yealland is the villain of the piece, but as far as I can tell it (not far at all! caveat!) Barker represents his methods more or less accurately. Yealland takes patients who have been shocked/traumatized into mutism or who exhibit physical contortions that cannot be explained by physical injuries and he shocks them–literally–back into health.

Yealland believes, as most men once did, that such symptoms are merely the result of a failure of nerve–of a sort of hysterical cowardice rather than damage that has been done to honorable and healthy human beings. So, armored with contempt–Barker portrays him as so thorough a bully that he has no idea he is, in fact, torturing war victims–Yealland uses physical pain and pressure, including electrical shocks and even cigarette burns to force men to speak or unbend their twisted limbs.

It works: they walk again, and speak; they even go back to war.

Enough summary–if this sounds bearable, then read the book. You will come to see the scene–once its horrors are half-forgotten–as a clever piece of fiction, and a major step toward what becomes the most important theme of the trilogy. Not Sassoon’s growth or the renunciation of his protest, but Rivers’ journey from mere saint to fellow martyr: he becomes a witness to the harrowing of the lost generation, one of the few older men in Britain who, through their proximity to the minds of traumatized men, sufferer the war themselves.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Scots Guard, 148-9.
  2. See Regeneration, 223-35.

George Coppard’s Machine Guns to Cambrai; Rowland Feilding’s Rangers at Bullecourt; Robert Graves Sets the Record Straight; Agnes Miller as Lizzie Bennet, Olaf Stapledon as Mr. Darcy

Today, a century back, was the first day of the battle of Cambrai. There shouldn’t have been any real hope for a breakthrough, especially so near to the beginning of winter. But the ground in front of Cambrai–between the Arras battlefield and the Somme battlefield–was relatively unspoiled, and it was conceivable that the British could take the town and the Bourlon Ridge and thus threaten to cut off the Hindenberg Line. It is also conceivable that since the Third Army hadn’t suffered horribly, lately, its restive commanders simply wanted to experiment with massed tanks and new artillery tactics, and so an intelligent commitment to holding the line gave way to an experimental local attack that grew out of scale as the planning continued.

But I’m not capable of giving an intelligent precis of the strategy here, nor do we really need one. Six divisions of infantry and over 400 tanks were massed for the traditional dawn assault, and there was some hope that the Germans, expecting a long barrage, would be unprepared for the sudden attack after a short, furious bombardment by over a thousand guns, most of which had been “silently” registered on their targets. The new tactics worked well, but they will not be enough to sustain initial successes against the heavily built-up Hindenberg Line.

Among the thousands lying out between the British front lines in the early morning hours were George Coppard and his two machine gun teams, part of the 37th Brigade, 12th Division.

There we were, a brigade of men, shivering on a cold November night, without a smoke, and suffering like drug addicts… we were only allowed to communicate in whispers. It was the queerest sensation being packed with a vast crowd of warriors, within 400 yards of our front line, and out in the open, after living like rabbits in burrows for many months. It was a spooky business, and we kept as quiet as mice…

Like all the rest I was excited at the prospect of going into battle behind these new-fangled Wellsian monsters. I felt they were really going to exact retribution, on behalf of all of us, for the countless miseries and privations that we poor blighters had suffered at Jerry’s hands.This was to be the reckoning…

Zero was at 6.30 am on that memorable day, 20 November. We heard the sound of tank engines warming up. The first glimpse of dawn was beginning to show as we stood waiting for the big bang that would erupt behind us at the end of the countdown. Lieutenant Garbutt and Sergeant Critcher were standing near me. At last the officer began to count. He was bang on, and in a flash the black sky at our backs was ablaze with stabbing shafts of light. A vast drum of terrible thunder swept along the eight-mile front and a chorus of shells screamed over to the east. The need for silence was over, and we exploded in a babble of excitement. That concentration of artillery was surely one of the greatest ever known. The tanks, looking like giant toads, became visible against the skyline as they approached the top of the slope. Some of the leading tanks carried huge bundles of tightly-bound brushwood, which they dropped when a wide trench was encountered, thus providing a firm base to cross over. Suddenly, the bombardment ceased. By now the tanks were near the German lines and shooting it out where resistance was met…

We went forward into enemy country in a manner never possible without the aid of tanks. ‘A’ section fell in behind the Queen’s, my two guns being on the right flank. No enemy fire of any sort impeded us until we passed Gonnelieu on our left… It was broad daylight as we crossed No Man’s Land and the German front line. I saw very few wounded coming back, and only a handful of prisoners. The tanks appeared to have busted through any resistance. The enemy wire had been dragged about like old curtains, though it was not comparable in density to the terrible wire at the beginning of the Somme battle.

As we moved forward… I could see several tanks rolling forward steadily. There did not appear to be any organised defence against them. Some changed directions to meet isolated spots of resistance, mostly from machine guns. One or two had come to a stand-still, probably with engine trouble…

From the general situation it seemed to me that the German infantry had either fled at the apparition of the tanks or had pulled out deliberately, leaving their machine guns to do what they could…

Whatever the reason for the feeble resistance, it suited my gun team very nicely, and we moved forward steadily with guns and gear. Officialdom had designated tanks sex-wise, i.e. those with light cannon were males and those with machine guns were females. This caused the lads to think up some bright expressions when viewing the lumbering monsters, such as, “Here’s an old bitch,’ or, ‘There goes a bloody great bull.’

Advancing along captured communications trenches, Coppard and his men eventually discovered that not all German resistance had been overcome. His wide-ranging memories of the day[1] narrow, now, as he comes under direct fire.

We reached a point where it cut through the banks of a sunken road. We had to cross the road, but pulled up sharp at the sight of three dead Tommies lying on it. I dashed across the road to where the trench continued–a matter of about ten feet. From a concealed position on my right a Jerry machine guns opened fire. My hair stood on end as the bullets hissed past my back. The gunner was just a trifle late to get me.

There was a tank nearby beginning to move after a stop. I told one of the crew about the enemy machine gun, ‘We’ll fix the bastard,’ he replied, and slowly the tank shuffled round on its tracks and rolled off in the direction of the hostile gun. Then came a fiery burst as the hapless weapon tried to beat off the tank, the bullets clanging and ricocheting. The teams crossed the road safely, well-bucked at this practical demonstration of a tank in action.

Other than this adventure, Coppard saw little action–most of the German artillery seems to have withdrawn before the attack–evidence, perhaps, that they were not in fact strategically surprised. The 37th Brigade advances seven kilometres, just as planned, and without finding targets along the way. After his two teams dig in for the night–and for the expected counter-attack–Coppard explored their immediate area, finding a German command dugout with a body at the bottom. Nauseated–and fearing booby traps–he and his hungry men forgo taking any of the food in the dugout…[2]

 

Rowland Feilding‘s battalion was part of the 16th (Irish) Division, and attacked not as part of the main effort at Cambrai but with the subsidiary attack several miles to the west, at Bullecourt. They held the right flank of their brigade attack, which would prove to be a difficult situation.

Shortly before Zero I headed for the front to wish the assaulting Companies good luck before they went over, but I was delayed, and found myself still in the fire-trench when, bursting out of almost perfect silence, our barrage started…

As a precautionary measure I had had the direction of the objective marked out with tape the night before, having learned, from previous experience, the difficulty of keeping direction in the dark.

Absolutely to the tick I watched the men scaling the ladders… and scrambling over the parapet, the signallers under their sergeant struggling with the coils of telephone wire that was to keep me in touch with the assaulting troops once they had established themselves in the German trench. Those are sights that are very inspiring, and which engrave themselves upon the memory, but I prefer to turn away from them…

By this time the usual inferno… had worked up to its full fury.

It is very clear, at least, that British synchronization has reached a high level of efficiency. Feilding describes the barrage, and his attempt to control the attack from a forward position, but the small dugout soon becomes crammed with wounded men and German prisoners, so he headed back to his “proper Headquarters.”

At this moment poor Brett came stumbling back, crimson with blood, having been shot through the face, bringing further confirmation of the news which I already had from him by runner, that the enemy was furiously counter-attacking our exposed right flank.

The two bunkers are visible in the upper left of the map segment, below, just to the left of the hatched vertical line. Both are marked, appropriately enough, with a symbol much like the conventional “mars” symbol, but in this case indicating a “mebus” machine gun emplacement.

In his next letter, Feilding will explain the tactical situation. The primary objectives of his two companies were two huge reinforced concrete bunkers (“Mebus” was then the term) known as “Mars” and “Jove.” Both were swiftly outflanked under a precise barrage and smoke-screen–“the advance to the attack across Noman’s Land had been carried out precisely as rehearsed”–and surrendered after brief resistance. Eventually, 152 prisoners were collected, but the engineers accompanying the infantry, focused on clearing mines and booby-traps, were unable to block all of the tunnels connecting the German network of defensive positions.

When the counter-attack came, less than an hour after zero, it was both over the open ground to their right and through tunnels that led to the bunker.

You will appreciate its severity when I tell you that the Commander and twenty-six out of twenty-eight other ranks of the right flank platoon became casualties. The officers and men fought with the most heroic determination in spite of a failing and finally disappearing supply of bombs…

At a critical moment one of the men, Private K. White, rushed close up to a traverse from behind which the enemy was bombing, and actually catching some of their bombs in the air, threw them back before they had exploded.

But it was not enough–after an hour, Captain Brett, shot through the face, led a retreat onto the other pillbox. This held, and after another hour, Feilding himself crossed No Man’s land with his orderly in order to visit the position.

I talked to the men as I passed along the line, and found them in good spirits, and confident in the knowledge of the splendid part they had played that morning…

They have done well–and still suffered heavy casualties.

The familiar scene of desolation confronted me. Each time I see this kind of thing I think it is worse than the last time, and indeed, on this occasion, so churned up was the surface that, but for the line of tunnel entrances and the trodden ground between them, there was little left to indicate where the trench had been. It was just a sea of overlapping craters of huge dimensions–a dismal chaos of fresh-turned earth.

Feilding, with little to do now that the counter-attack has petered out, explores the new position, coming upon the dead, the dying, and the wounded. Even though he is so close to the action–he was in command of the men who stormed the two pillboxes and took the tunnels with hand-grenades, he writes almost as an observer. He sees the horrible aftermath, promises aid to the wounded, and collects souvenirs…[3]

 

Back down in the main battle, Edward Horner (one of the last of the Coterie, and a great friend of both Diana Manners and Duff Cooper) moved up with his 18th Hussars as the battle began. We have read Coppard’s and Feilding’s tales of heavy machine guns, precise artillery coordination, and tank exploits against pillboxes, and the battlefield was overflown by hundreds of aircraft–1917 as a foreshadowing of 1939. But there were only a few hundred tanks to be had and, as we shall see, they were mechanically unreliable, and so the plan for exploiting any breakthroughs was essentially the same as it had been in 1915 and 1916, and behind the attacking tanks and infantry trotted three entire divisions of cavalry–Hussars, Dragoons, and Lancers no longer dressed in their flashing Napoleonic finery, but still booted, spurred, helmeted, and mounted. Cambrai was, in the words of one of our writers who was not there but will study the subject, “a harum-scarum affair, ill-planned and feebly directed.” It was a raid that got out of hand, in terms of its scale, and could only do what raids do: snatch a bit of ground which cannot be held. The tactical coordination may yet be a model for future operations, but they have not solved the operational problem of continuing the advance.

So, as the German counter-attack gathers, Horner’s Hussars, part of the 1st Cavalry Division, passed through the infantry and attacked the village of Noyelles, south-east of Cambrai. But too slowly: although in some places all three major layers of the Hindenberg Line were pierced to a distance of nearly five miles (a fourth line was incomplete), by the time the heavily-laden horses had picked their way through, the German defense had had time to organize. The cavalry were in it, at last, but they were not cantering through the open fields toward Berlin. They were fighting a confused battle on a torn up field, against undisturbed reserves who had easier access to heavy weapons.

 

Back to the infantry, now. E. A. Mackintosh’s 4th Seaforth Highlanders were in reserve, although they probably assumed that they would be called in when the attack bogged down. But they were not–and if the cavalry were both elated and disappointed to be involved in heavy fighting, the infantry were very pleased to have a short march forward into the captured area. So, despite yesterday’s note, Mackintosh saw no fighting today. During the night they will take over for the first waves, victorious but exhausted.[4]

 

Also in the battle were both of Isaac Rosenberg‘s recent units–the company of Royal Engineers with whom he had served as a laborer and the 11th King’s Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster). As with Mackintosh’s Seaforths, their easy first day will turn out to be only be a brief reprieve: the German counter-attack will come soon, and it will be as devastating as the British assault was successful. And so Rosenberg will come to know that he has been very fortunate to be very ill, and in hospital, and not in Bourlon Wood.[5]

 

It might make sense to end here, or to spend more time fleshing out these scattered notices of a large battle–but that, of course, is not how today, a century back, was experienced. It was all in bits in pieces, and only later would it be the beginning of a strategic story of ambition, success, and cruel but predictable reversal. In England the evening papers will have some news of the attack, but for most people, most of the day, their thoughts were elsewhere.

Robert Graves, for instance, is writing from his garrison job in Wales to Robert Nichols. The letter happily discusses their recent literary successes–“My God, Robert, we have lit such a candle as by God’s grace will set the whole barn alight”–and proposes various projects, before it works around to Graves’s real business–clearing the air of any lingering questions about his sexuality.

It’s only fair to tell you that since the cataclysm of my friend Peter, my affections are running in the more normal channels and I correspond regularly and warmly with Nancy Nicholson, who is great fun. I only tell you this so that you should get out of your head any misconceptions about my temperament. I should hate you to think I was a confirmed homosexual even if it were only in my thought and went no further.

Fair enough, perhaps. It is testimony to both Graves’s enthusiasm and his obliviousness that it might only recently have occurred to him that his habit of being honest about his (chaste) passion for a younger schoolboy might lead some to think that he was “a confirmed homosexual.” The topic may be on his mind, too, because Nichols–his heterosexuality confirmed by syphilis apparently contracted from prostitutes–has recently spent time with Siegfried Sassoon and Robbie Ross. And then there is one more poet whose affections run in less “normal” channels… and whom Graves, after connecting Nichols and Sassoon (though Ross was there to do the real work) will try to take credit for discovering, even though, of course, it was Sassoon who introduced them.

I think I have found a few poet as yet unfledged. One Owen, subaltern in the 2nd Manchester Regiment.[6]

Owen, meanwhile, left home this morning, a century back, his leave up, for garrison duty in Scarborough.[7]

 

Finally today, we’ll take a perversely wide view of “war literature” and swing from the tanks at Cambrai to the nineteenth century novel inspiring in Australia.

Agnes Miller–together with a score of other wives and sweethearts–suffers the compounded insult, here, of once again waiting quietly in the background while men’s words take center stage. The excuse, of course, is that we are interested, a century on, in the experience of the war and the problems of writing about it, and therefore the letters of those at the front naturally take precedence over those written from home to the soldiers (and ambulance drivers). Which is fine, as far as it goes, but it’s still a shame that this echoes the general devaluing of women’s voices, a century back. Although sometimes any fault is mine–I choose to omit the letters, that is–another reasonable excuse is that there is often no possibility of including the other half of the conversation: letters from the front could be bundled and laid lovingly away in drawers and trunks, while letters to the front were very often lost or simply thrown away, since a bundle of letters would become a burden to a front-line soldier.

But some recipients were able to keep at least some of their letters, and, while I often skip Agnes Miller’s tales of daily life in wartime Australia, today’s letter, though ill-timed to coincide with a major tank battle and the climax of one machine-gunner’s memoir, is impossible to resist. In fact, it’s about as excellent a letter from a lover as one could hope to receive… which is also to say that I approve of its subject and position, a century on. Moreover, after he will have received her long-delayed doubts on the strength of their relationship to survive these years apart, this letter will surely overwhelm Olaf Stapledon with love for his beloved–and with gratitude for the timely wisdom of that “lady novelist” then dead a century and four months.

20 November 1917

I wonder if perhaps you are at home now on leave—perhaps at this very minute waking up one morning at Annery. I have a habit of always thinking of you eight weeks ago, sort of. I don’t realise that you are really there keeping pace with me at every fresh minute of the day. It is nice to think that. It makes you more real. I have read two books in the past three days. That is my record! I kept thinking how much you would have enjoyed them if we had been reading them aloud to each other. Of course you must have read them—“Pride & Prejudice” & “Northanger Abbey.” You do like Jane Austen, don’t you? I simply love her. Such really artistic delightful writing. Such books make me think of diamonds, small diamonds but perfect in workmanship. Absolutely genuine—clean cut, perfectly smooth & sparkling. Full of such delicious humour & such sound good sense, & although the ways & the language that day are so very different from ours yet the characters are just such as we meet everywhere. I should like to have been friends with Jane & Elizabeth Bennett. . . . I should so like to be as bright & intelligent & sprightly as Elizabeth! No wonder Mr. Darcy “got it badly” when he did get it! I like to picture you in the characters of all the nice lovers— my
Mr. Darcy!

. . . I can understand Elizabeth very well. I can understand her resentment at such a sudden & unexpected declaration. I can understand her disapproval amounting to positive dislike on that occasion. I think she would understand my despair & sorrow—almost shame at having won a love that I could never hope to return. If she had understood my feeling she would not have been surprised to find me weeping upstairs in the darkened drawing room. . . .

Then next I see the beginnings of changes in both of us—changes which make us feel how far away we both were before from the real thing & at last “my Mr. Darcy” comes to me—or rather I write to him from the other end of the world & say, “Dear Mr. Darcy—Once, a long time ago, you asked me to be your wife & I said no & I was very cross & horrible & now I am sorry. Everything is different now & I am different too & I understand & if you will only ask me once again I will not say no—indeed I will not.”

And she did not.

Mr. & Mrs. Darcy were very happy after their stormy courtship & Mr. & Mrs. Stapledon will surely be even more so to make up for all the long time they have had to wait. . . . Jane Austen really is a tonic as well as an artist.[8]

We are to be grateful, however, that Agnes didn’t happen upon Persuasion, first, which might have romantically inclined her toward a long sharp wartime separation and a preference, after all, for brave, dashing, and fortunate officers, rather than principled and dreamy pacifists…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Which read a little bit too much, in a few places, as if they had been influenced by the style of later popular summary.
  2. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 122-6.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 228-34.
  4. Campbell and Green, Can't Shoot a Man With a Cold, 204-5.
  5. Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 375.
  6. In Broken Images, 88-89. There is no date on the letter, but it is dated to today, a century back, by Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 425.
  7. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 283.
  8. Talking Across the World, 257-8.